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Severance v. New Castle Community School Corp.

Court of Appeals of Indiana

April 13, 2017

Wyatt Severance, Appellant-Plaintiff,
v.
New Castle Community School Corporation a/k/a New Castle Career Center, and Turner Melton, Appellees-Defendants

         Appeal from the Henry Circuit Court The Honorable Kit C. Dean Crane, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 33C02-1504-CT-23

          Attorneys for Appellant Kory T. Bell Federico & Bell Hagerstown, Indiana Richard Andrew Young Greensburg, Indiana

          Attorneys for Appellee - New Castle Community School Corporation John C. Trimble Neal Bowling Lewis Wagner, LLP Indianapolis, Indiana

          BAKER, JUDGE.

         [¶1] In 2013, Wyatt Severance and Turner Melton were both enrolled in a vocational education program operated by the New Castle Career Center, which is administered through the New Castle Community School Corporation (the "School"). A physical altercation between the two students resulted in a serious leg injury to Severance, who filed a civil complaint against the School, alleging negligence. The School moved for summary judgment on two grounds: first, that Severance was contributorily negligent in bringing about his injuries, thereby barring any recovery, and second, that the School did not breach its duty to Severance. During the summary judgment stage, Severance designated an expert affidavit, which the School moved to strike. The trial court granted the School's motion to strike and the School's motion for summary judgment. Finding that the trial court erred in granting the School's motion to strike and that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether the School breached its duty and whether Severance was contributorily negligent precluding summary judgment, we reverse and remand.

         Facts [1]

         [¶2] In the fall of 2013, Severance and Melton were two of sixteen students in the School's building trades program. Severance, who attended Hagerstown High School, was seventeen years old and a first year in the program; Melton, who attended Blue River Valley High School, was nineteen years old and a returning second year. The program took place at a residential home construction site; on school days, the students drove from their respective schools to the construction site and worked for three hours each afternoon. The teacher, Trevor Stout, who had taught in the program for ten years prior to this incident, would assign tasks, and the students would disperse throughout the site to work on them. John Edington was Stout's aide. Stout created a structure where second-year students would give directions to first-year students.

         [¶3] Students described Melton as a "hothead" with anger issues, and they would avoid Melton because of his verbal abuse and harassment. Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 89, 110-12, 114. The students believed that Melton enjoyed picking fights with other students. One student had asked Stout whether he could be kept separate from Melton because of Melton's verbal abuse, personal interactions, physical size, and attitude; Stout granted the student's request. Stout remembered Melton as a bossy and dominant person in the group. He recognized that Melton would become frustrated if Stout did not answer his questions to his satisfaction, and he saw Melton throw tools down and raise his voice on the job site.

         [¶4] Severance and Melton did not interact before their altercation. During the program, Severance observed Melton belittling his work partners and classmates in the presence of others, ordering other students to go to the tool shed to get his tools, and taking credit for other students' work. Severance did not observe Melton make physical contact with anyone in the program; he did not know whether Melton had been involved in a physical altercation with another student in the program or at Blue River High School; and he was not aware of Melton making threats of physical harm to other students.

         [¶5] Around 12 p.m. on November 26, 2013, Melton stole Severance's bag of sunflower seeds out of Severance's hands as Severance was waiting for class to begin. Stout assigned six students, including Severance and Melton, to clean the basement. Melton came down the steps to the basement giving orders to the other students; he told the other students that they were not working hard enough. Severance asked Melton, "What is your issue, man?" and said to him, "Hey, I just want you to stop." Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 80-81, 113. Melton approached and started threatening Severance, asking him, "What are you going to do about it?" Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 80-81. Melton pushed Severance back about seven steps and pinned him against a wall while shoving a broom to Severance's throat. Severance said, "I don't know what I'm going to do about it." Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 81.

         [¶6] Melton then hit Severance with the broom. Severance managed to get the broom from Melton and swung the brush end of it at Melton from about six feet away. Melton then knocked the broom from Severance's hands and ran toward Severance; Severance did not run toward Melton. Melton got behind Severance, blocked his vision, and wrapped his right leg around Severance's left leg and pulled Severance over. Severance felt a "pop." Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 83. He collapsed on the ground and blacked out. Severance suffered a tibial plateau fracture that required surgery and resulted in a permanent injury. Melton walked away, left the basement, and left the job site. The altercation lasted no more than two and one-half minutes.

         [¶7] Severance filed a civil complaint against Melton and the School, alleging negligence.[2] On April 19, 2016, the School moved for summary judgment on two grounds: first, that Severance was contributorily negligent in bringing about his injuries, thereby barring any recovery, and second, that the School did not breach its duty to Severance. On May 13, 2016, Severance opposed the School's motion, requested a hearing, and designated evidence, including an expert affidavit of Dr. Jean Peterson. The trial court scheduled the summary judgment hearing for August 5, 2016.

         [¶8] On August 1, 2016, the School moved to strike Dr. Peterson's affidavit, arguing that it contained conclusory opinions unsupported by facts or evidence, lacked explanation of the methodologies that she used to reach her conclusions, and included a conclusion of law that the School was negligent. On August 5, 2016, Severance opposed the School's motion to strike; also on August 5, 2016, the trial court struck the affidavit without argument. During the summary judgment hearing, Severance requested the court to reconsider its ...


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